Barrel Aged Beer: It’s the Wood that Makes it Good

Local breweries are partnering with Long Island Spirits to create incredible, all-local-everything barrel-aged brews.

Beer and used liquor barrels are a match made in heaven. • Illustration by Kevin Breslawski

“Liquor before beer, you’re in the clear.” You’ve probably heard this expression a few times, though we personally doubt its scientific merits. However, a few Long Island breweries are taking it both literally and seriously, using empty liquor barrels to age their beers and combine the best flavors of both.

A little over ten years ago, Long Island Spirits became Long Island’s first craft distillery. Owner Rich Stabile spent a lot of time as a child on the North Fork, watching potato fields give way to vineyards over the years. Even at an early age he thought, “Why isn’t anyone making potato vodka?”

This might seem like an odd musing for someone well below the drinking age, but he always had a fascination with distilling and even did some experimenting after a still from science class mysteriously made its way into his gym bag. “I’m not sure if Kings Park High School is going to come after me for that,” laughs Stabile. Though he ultimately went into the technology field, the passion never waned. Most business trips involved a little free time spent touring wineries and breweries around the world.

In 2007, he finally became that person making vodka with local potatoes. From there, he expanded to single malt whisky (no “e”, an homage to the Scots and their old world techniques) naturally fruit infused liqueurs, potato based gin and straight bourbon.

When people hear bourbon they think Kentucky, and Stabile knew it. He wanted his bourbon to reflect the region and not draw comparisons to national household names. Like all Long Island Spirits, Rough Rider Bourbon uses locally grown ingredients including corn and winter rye—which conveniently is a cover crop that keeps soil healthy in the potato off season. It’s first aged in new American oak barrels, handcrafted by East Coast Barrels of Medford, and then matured in merlot and chardonnay barrels from Sparkling Pointe and Jamesport Vineyards. You’re not alone if you’re sensing a theme here.

Each beer sits in the barrel for a minimum of 6 months with some maturing for up to a year and a half.

Pine Barrens single malt American whisky was again inspired by something close to home—Old Howling Bastard, the barleywine from Blue Point Brewery. In fact, the first eight batches were produced by simply distilling Blue Point’s beer and aging it for about a year. To this day Long Island Spirits brews a similar beer in house to use as the base for their single malt.

Being a distillery and not a brewery, they were running into a bit of a problem with yeast supply. That’s where Long Ireland Beer Company came in—the two set up a system where yeast was bartered for used liquor barrels. Long Ireland had been looking to barrel age Black Friday, their sought after imperial stout, so the timing was perfect.

They immediately put the whisky and rye barrels to work and went on to age a chocolate porter, winter ale, breakfast stout and even their Celtic Ale. Each beer sits in the barrel for a minimum of 6 months with some maturing for up to a year and a half.

Rough Rider Bourbon is first aged in new American oak barrels, and then matured in merlot and chardonnay barrels from local wineries.

Surprisingly, owner and brewer Greg Martin says the Celtic Ale is his favorite. “Because it’s such a mild flavored beer going into the barrel, the transition is so apparent. It lets the barrel just shine.” Celtic Ale starts off as a lighter, easy drinking beer and after a year in a Long Island Spirits barrel it has huge vanilla and wood notes. They joke that it winds up tasting like a rich cream soda.

For Long Ireland, the aim is to have the barrel highlight the beer. As Greg says, every barrel has its own eco-sphere so they all have slightly different flavors and behaviors. And rye barrels add a peppery spice that you just won’t get from other liquors.

Destination Unknown, a Bay Shore farm brewery that just celebrated its two year anniversary, wasted no time getting their beer in barrels. They opened the brewery doors with the help of a Kickstarter and the top prize was the ability to design and name your own beer. A friend was the highest donor and wasn’t shy with his wish—to brew a barrel aged imperial stout.

Co-owner Chris Candiano promptly called Long Island Spirits. “Just like local grain and hops, we wanted to reach out to a local spirit company to get that real Long Island feel.” The stout, named JaBREWzo, went on to be aged in Rough Rider barrels. It was such a hit among customers that they brewed it again this year but put it in rye barrels for a slightly different flavor.

If you’re a beer or whisky fan and have not yet tried a barrel aged brew, you really need to change that.

Destination Unknown prefers to put only stronger beers in the barrels, with dark malt and roasty notes that play well with the oaky char. Their vanilla porter is one that they like to sample both before and after barrel aging. “It’s fun to have the same beer both ways to see the difference and how elegant the barrel makes the beer. It adds so many layers of flavor and brings out the vanilla notes more.”

Another brewery offering a link to Kentucky is Gun Hill, though their three-year-old facility is located right in the Bronx. One of their barrel aged beers is a Kentucky Common, which is anything but common these days. Pre-prohibition, the majority of beer brewed and consumed in Kentucky was this style—inexpensive, quick to brew and very popular in local saloons. It was a favorite of the working class, including whisky distillers, so it’s only fitting that Gun Hill ages their modern day, Bronx-brewed Kentucky Common in Long Island Spirits whisky barrels. Talk about tying it all together, right?

If you’re a beer or whisky fan and have not yet tried a barrel aged brew, get your hands on one of these local creations as soon as possible. And wine lovers, don’t feel left out. Across Long Island there are used wine barrels filled with beer, marrying the flavors of the two and just waiting to mature and be enjoyed. But that’s a story for another day—one you can read all about on EdibleLongIsland.com.

Illustrations by Kevin Breslawski.

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Husband and wife team Alicia Valeo and Kevin Breslawski write the blog Beer Loves Company.